August 9, 2023
By Adam Ruffner
After the first decade of AUDL play largely catered to offensive dominance, the 2023 season has been a renaissance for defenses. Greater strategic knowledge than ever before and the implementation of new pulling rules have fused together to produce lower scoring and more leverage for D-lines across the league. Here are eight players—one from each of the remaining teams—who could have profound effects for their team’s chances ahead of this weekend’s divisional championships.
Players listed alphabetically.
Lukas Ambrose, Los Angeles Aviators
Even without a takeaway in his first playoff start, rookie and current DPOY favorite Lukas Ambrose was more than impactful for the LA defense in Colorado, and still possesses a four-block margin at the top of the leaderboard over everyone in the AUDL. In his last matchup against Salt Lake, Ambrose was tasked with covering Jordan Kerr and came away with three blocks and four goals, continually frustrating the Shred’s top option with electric playmaking. Salt Lake earned the tough two-goal win on June 30, but Ambrose left his mark on the league’s most efficient offensive unit.
And while he’s obviously gifted with some outrageous athletic abilities and Ferrari-like acceleration, Ambrose’s superpower is his processing speed. There’s zero lag between his read on the disc/player/angle and him hitting ignition on his first step; Ambrose can cover acres of space in the blink of an eye, which makes him one of the best help-side defenders in deep space in the league; nobody is attacking discs like Ambrose in 2023.
But for all his warp speed energy on the field, the 24-year-old Oregon product oozes LA beach.
“I just work here, man,” he nonchalantly told the “Game Of The Week” broadcast crew after LA’s round one win.
Justin Burnett, Atlanta Hustle
With 31 career blocks in his first 19 starts, Justin Burnett is already in Atlanta’s top 10 all-time in takeaways—and he turned 21 just two days ago. Burnett is as explosive as it gets when it comes to making plays, but it’s his discipline, vision, and versatility that make him a star. It does not matter if he’s matched up in single or zone coverage—backfield or downfield—Burnett remains equally disruptive for opposing offenses, making him a kind of Queen-piece for Atlanta’s defensive chessboard and strategies; Burnett can move in all directions with force.
Beyond just his individual impact as a playmaker, Burnett’s rapid evolution into one of the league’s best block getters has had massive downstream effects for this Hustle team and its lineups. Not only can Atlanta deploy more coverages and present different looks than they have in the past, making their defense more complex, they’ve also been able to develop defensive anchors into expanded roles for greater team successes. Take Brett Hulsmeyer for instance. Just as recently as last season Hulsmeyer spent 94 percent of his playing time on D-line rotations as the team’s primary block generator. Now with a full season of Burnett, Hulsmeyer has been given more O-line reps—just 36 percent of his playing time has been on defense in 2023—and transformed into one of the league’s premier two-way threats and a possible MVP candidate; without Burnett, it’s hard to imagine Atlanta displacing Hulsmeyer from his defensive role that generated over 60 blocks in three seasons from 2019 to 2022.
The Hustle are just one home win away from their first Championship Weekend appearance, and the local prodigy Burnett could be their deciding factor.
Antoine Davis, New York Empire (Pictured)
Maybe the most “stats don’t tell anywhere near the full story” player in the league this season, Antoine Davis has almost entirely reinvented his game and focus since he joined New York. In his former role as one of the league’s top receivers, Davis averaged 57 scores and never played fewer than 227 O-line points over a four year period from 2017 to 2021. But in his first two seasons with the Empire, Davis has played a grand total of six offensive points and has just seven total scores in 11 games in 2023.
So where has all that energy gone? Into becoming a lockdown defender on some of the best scoring options in the league. Emboldened by New York’s impressive defensive framework and deep rotation, Davis has been pouring everything into his coverage abilities and denying touches. Davis doesn’t even crack the top four on his own team for blocks this season, and that’s because opponents simply aren’t throwing in his direction very often; Davis Island is not a hospitable place to visit in the warm months of the summer, I’m telling you. Davis has reformatted his prototypical size and speed to match and anticipate the movements he used to make as a WR1, often mimicking and negating the separation moves of opposing matchups. He’s also developed as a communicator, and can fluidly exchange players with other Empire teammates for effective switches.
Want to run a deep route? Great, match Davis’s footspeed in the open field over 40 yards—he dares you.
Dylan DeClerck, Minnesota Wind Chill
Few players visibly embody the ferociousness of defensive play like Dylan DeClerck. And for the third straight season he leads Minnesota in takeaways, helping fuel the second highest break rate in the league in 2023.
DeClerck plays the midfield like a fleet-footed, heads-up linebacker, reading throwers eyes and able to pick up the run (read: stay patient on swings and dumps) or blitz on the pass (intercept throws in the lane) with equal production. His instincts and quick feet can turn simple throws into costly mistakes in the blink of an eye. DeClerck is also second-to-none in carrying his momentum through the turnover and becoming a weapon immediately on the counterattack, with a whopping 52 goals the past two regular seasons; of the 167 players with at least 105 defensive points played in 2023, none have more goals than DeClerck.
The Wind Chill have been a defensive break train at home the past few seasons, and have won 11 of their last 12 at Sea Foam Stadium, including all six games this year. Indy is a team that loves to work the disc in smaller spaces, which could mean a big night for DeClerck in Minnesota’s third straight divisional championship game.
Alexandre Fall, DC Breeze
Two full seasons removed from a major knee injury, Alexandre Fall may be the fastest player in the AUDL. DC possibly runs the most single coverage looks of any playoff team, and that’s because of the confidence they have in players like Fall. He doesn’t run so much as teleport, and his head-on-a-swivel adjustments make him a menace over entire area codes of the field. Fall’s lightning quick reflexes and ability to take away short routes underneath make him an ideal matchup for other team’s speed options; normally open targets become treacherous decisions with Fall in pursuit.
And because of his breakaway potential following O-line turnovers, Fall has been one of the best receiving options on the counterattack the past two seasons. His 34 goals and 1600-plus receiving yards tell part of the story, but Fall can exert a ton of pressure individually by simply flashing deep and drawing multiple opponents in his jet wake in transition, which creates opportunities for his teammates in the process; there’s a reason Fall has the highest plus/minus of any Breeze defender in 2023.
No defense hinges on one player’s performance, but DC is 11-1 since the beginning of last season when Fall registers at least one block.
Jake Fella, Indianapolis AlleyCats
The reigning “Best Handler Defender” in the division, Jacob Fella is exceptional at using his combination of size and mobility to obscure and complicate throwing lanes for opposing passers. His long frame and active positioning makes him extremely challenging on the mark, and his agility can shutdown reset options, forcing handlers to cycle upfield, where, again, he’s often just too big for the opposition to deal with; it’s a real “pick your poison” decision on where to move the 6’4” Fella so he’s not wreaking havoc in the backfield, or using his size as a help defender downfield.
And with Indy’s influx of young talent, the 29-year-old has assumed a leadership role on numerous defensive rotations. In addition to guarding opposing top handlers in one-on-one situations, Fella is often seen dictating coverage from the middle of the field in the AlleyCats’ zone formations, calling out switches and shifting alignments to take away space.
The ‘Cats face one of the toughest road challenges this Saturday in Minnesota. But Fella could present a problem at the point of attack for a Wind Chill offense that has struggled all season.
Kyle Weinberg, Salt Lake Shred
One of the only remaining Shred defensive starters from last season, Kyle Weinberg has been the backbone for a defense that ranks second and fifth in breaks and blocks per game, respectively. And though he lacks some of the highlight reel layouts of his teammates, Weinberg more than makes up for it by being one of the strongest, most consistent, and best conditioned defenders in the AUDL—getting open against Weinberg only becomes harder as games wear on. That kind of four quarter discipline has been a hallmark for the Shred as they’ve grown from first-year upstarts into true championship contenders.
Similar to DC, the Shred have a lot of faith in their single coverage looks, and that starts with Weinberg. Few if any opponents win out in positioning or sky battles with him, and there’s a no nonsense finality to Weinberg’s swats that can have a demoralizing effect. Add in his pulling skills and Salt Lake’s propensity for sending Weinberg at opponents for trap double teams, and there’s a lot of levels to how he can thwart and stunt offensive rhythm.
Joey Wylie, Austin Sol
One of the more unheralded stars in the AUDL this season, Joey Wylie leads all Sol defenders in blocks (16), scores (35), completions (138), total yards (2458), and defensive points played (204). An electric playmaker since his rookie season in 2021, Wylie has improved nearly every facet of his game in his three years in the league, and looks like a field general in big games for Austin. In his two playoff starts, Wylie has three blocks and zero turnovers, including a four score, one-block, 300-receiving-yard banger against the Flyers on July 29.
“Spring loaded” is a term I often associate with Wylie when watching him play. He has a way of always being in an attack stance, and Wylie’s freakish athletic abilities and stamina make him a horse on vertical routes; like Davis and Fall on this list, you simply do not want to make things a track meet with Wylie. When he was younger, Wylie used to sometimes put himself out of position with his numerous layout bid attempts. But he’s a bit more selective on when to pull the trigger, making him an even tougher opponent who can still earn the big block.
Austin has relied on their defense in 2023, and no team averages more break scores at a higher rate than the Sol. If Wylie and the rest of the Sol D-line can generate pressure on Atlanta’s machine-like offense, they could ride their five-game hot streak to their first final four bid.